The story of Kingsley Plantation dates back to the Kingdom of Great Britain’s 18th-century occupation of Florida. Under British control, several plantations were established throughout the region, including one on Fort George Island by Richard Hazard in 1765. Here, on one of the southernmost Sea Islands, a chain of barrier islands stretching from North Florida to South Carolina which would become the cradle of America’s Gullah Geechee heritage and culture, the enslaved were used to harvest indigo.
After the transfer of Florida back to the Spanish, the Spanish government granted the island to South Carolinian John “Lighting” McQueen. McQueen developed a plantation with 300 enslaved Africans in 1793 but soon found himself in bankruptcy, turning the property over to Georgia’s John McIntosh in 1804. To escape punishment from the Spanish for leading an unsuccessful rebellion to annex Florida into the United States, McIntosh fled back to Georgia, leasing the property to Zephaniah Kingsley, Jr. in 1814 who then acquired it in 1817.
Kingsley Plantation photograph taken between 1870 and 1889. (State Archives of Florida)
Born in England in 1765, Kingsley was raised in Charleston and grew up to become a successful shipping merchant and slave trader. Kingsley became a citizen of Spanish Florida in 1803, involved in the smuggling of the enslaved into the U.S. through neighboring Amelia Island. He soon acquired a 2,600-acre plot of land (present day Orange Park) where he developed the Laurel Grove Plantation, relocating several enslaved from the family’s plantation in South Carolina to cultivate oranges, sea island cotton, corn, potatoes, and peas. He also trained his enslaved vocational and artisan skills, increasing his earning potential of future sales.
Considered “one of Florida’s most flamboyant slaveholders”, Kingsley purchased and married Anna Madgigine Jai, a Wolof girl from present day Senegal in 1806. He eventually grew to depend on Anna to run the plantation in his absence. In 1811, Kingsley’s request to free Anna and their children was granted by the Spanish government.
Kingsley Plantation between 1880 and 1899. (State Archives of Florida)
After taking over McIntosh’s land at Fort George Island, they managed 60 enslaved under a task system to produce indigo, sea island cotton, okra, oranges and other vegetables at the 1,000 acre property. The plantation’s fortunes changed in 1821, when Florida was taken over by the United States, a country that considered interracial marriage illegal. After realizing that he would not be able to convince Florida’s new government to allow rights for free people of color and that holdings willed to his family might be confiscated in the event of his death, most of his family was relocated to Haiti between 1835 and 1837.
Kingsley died in 1843 in New York City and what he left to family members of African descent was quickly contested on racial grounds by his white relatives. Anna Madgigine Jai then returned to Florida in 1846, accomplishing the unthinkable in the antebellum south. In a Duval County court, she successfully argued her case within the dictates of the Adams–Onís Treaty with Spain that ceded Florida to the U.S. in 1819.
Sold after Kingsley’s death, the plantation at Fort George Island was briefly controlled by the Freedmen’s Bureau and under private ownership until being acquired by the State of Florida in 1955. With many of its structures still surviving on the isolated sea island, the property was acquired by the National Park Service, becoming a part of the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve in 1991.
The Slave Dwelling Project
In 2018, Kingsley Plantation served as a major focal point of the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation’s (FTHP) Florida 40th Annual Preservation Conference. Largely coordinated by Adrienne Burke, Nassau County Director of Planning & Economic Opportunity, the FTHP and the National Park Service partnered to bring the Slave Dwelling Project to Kingsley, making it their first official visit to Florida as a part of their programming.
Headed by Joseph McGill, the Slave Dwelling Project is dedicated to preserving surviving African American slave dwellings while seeking to change the narrative around the history of slavery in the country. A standing room crowd of more than fifty, including descendant from the Kingsley family, attended the event which included an open and honest, emotional discussion about slavery.
Next Page: A Photo Tour of Kingsley Plantation